We breed several species of cockatoos here at Hornbeam Aviary, from Greater Sulphur Cresteds to tiny Goffin’s. None are more fascinating or fun to watch, however, than the Moluccans. Our wild-caught pairs are housed in large indoor/outdoor flights that seem to eliminate the stress they often show when kept in smaller, more intensive facilities. Here, with room to fly in the sun and play in the rain, I am able to observe some of the natural behaviors they might have displayed at home in the forested islands of Indonesia. Over the years these observations have helped me understand a little of what makes these beautiful birds either wonderful companions or impossibly difficult to live with.

I know of no other parrots that display such joyful exuberance and love of life as do happy, healthy Moluccan cockatoos.  They enthusiastically greet dawn, dusk, mealtime, rain, barking dogs, UPS trucks, blowing leaves and butterflies at full volume. These outbursts are generally brief during the day, but their morning and evening sing-a-longs often last 30 minutes or more – especially when each bird feels the need to outdo the others. They have an amazing repertoire of sounds that include quavering whinnies, brays, yips, yodels, squeals and shrieks that can be directed softly and tenderly at another individual or loud enough to crack glass.   

 Pairs with eggs or chicks tend to be less noisy, no doubt a strategy that helps keep their nesting sites unknown to predators.  When I see a male bird sitting quietly by himself smugly preening his feathers while the others are screaming like banshees, I can be pretty certain that his mate has a brand new clutch of eggs. The males take the day shift as they do their share of incubation and babysitting, which also keeps them busy and far less vocal.

While all parrots tend to be social creatures, I feel that Moluccan cockatoos suffer most from forced isolation – which often happens when they are kept as human companions. You only have to watch the behavior of a happily mated pair to understand that Moluccans were never intended to live a solitary existence. Even in large flights, unless they are raising a family, males and females are rarely far apart.  They bathe together, eat together, fly together, make noise together and finally, at night, sleep so tightly side by side that it would be difficult to force a sheet of paper between them. They constantly make eye contact with each other and engage in gentle mutual preening throughout the day. My nest box cameras show that they extend this astonishing level of attention to their chicks as well. 

             Even unmated individuals that are temporarily sharing flights with other birds of the same sex tend to buddy-up. It is interesting to note that while these “friends” may engage in some mutual preening, they aren’t as touchy-feely as one might expect for birds that have a reputation for demanding so much attention from their owners.  Most Moluccan cockatoos seem content just hanging out together. Sadie, a young Moluccan female who was parent raised here at Hornbeam Aviary is a good example. When she was eleven months old I moved her from her parent’s enclosure to a 30-foot flight shared by other cockatoo hens of several different species. Her parents were not tame and Sadie reacted to me the same way that a wild bird would. She made friends with the other birds quickly though, and within a few weeks was taking food out of my hand and soliciting skritches, right along with the rest of her new flock. Sadie will soon be three years old and she has become one of the most delightful, happy, well-adjusted birds I have ever known. She is the first to greet me when I enter the aviary and proceeds to check my pockets for treats. She chatters excitedly when she finds something good, and rushes outside to show it to the others and share with her best friend, a young citron hen. She enjoys my attention, likes petting, will gently preen my hair and eyelashes, but is too busy and bouncy to waste much precious time cuddling. Sadie is one of the lucky ones. If anything happens to me, she will fit in easily as someone else’s pet or future breeding hen.

            I’m certain that much of the bad press that Moluccan cockatoos receive is because their early imprinting and socialization so often centers around people. Many baby Moluccans have no idea how to relate to other birds, so that even in a multiple-bird household they have difficulty coping when their human flock leaves for work each day. If they lose their homes because they scream or pluck out of frustration, a life as a breeding bird isn’t even an option. While parent rearing may not be practical for many breeders, it is important that baby cockatoos of all kinds be raised in close contact with other babies as well as gentle older birds that can serve as parent figures. It is probably healthier for a baby Moluccan cockatoo to grow up thinking it is a cockatiel or a green wing macaw rather than a human being.

            At Hornbeam Aviary we try to leave baby cockatoos with their parents for a minimum of 4 weeks. When their pinfeathers begin to open and they no longer require warmth, they are brought down from the upstairs nursery to a big walk-in 4x7x7 foot Expandable Habitats flight cage that takes up a large portion of my kitchen. The original cage grate has been replaced with sections of industrial fiberglass grating with 1 ¼ inch square openings on which the babies can comfortably play and I can walk and sit. The chicks start out in a dark, partially covered box of wood shavings that sits on the floor of the cage. The rest of the cage is full of perches, ropes, swings, toys, and, of course, older baby cockatoos. After getting over their initial hissy-fit at the aerial acrobatics taking place over their heads, the new babies gradually become part of the little flock of cockatoos growing up in the flight cage. They learn to climb in and out of their “nest box”, play with low hanging ropes and foot toys, eat from the crock of soft food on the cage floor and interact with the older babies as they all pile into the box together at naptime. They learn to climb, play, eat and fly by watching the youngsters that have already mastered these skills. They enjoy lots of interaction with their human caregivers, of course, but more importantly they grow up knowing that they are birds sharing their lives with people.        

       

 

 

 

 

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